“I am a man who paints. Nothing more, nothing less,” repeats L.S. Lowry (Timothy Spall), a suffering artist thwarted by his elderly mother Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), throughout the gripping, gorgeously acted biopic “Mrs. Lowry & Son.” It’s a haunting mantra that speaks volumes about a self-effacing talent who became one of England’s most famous contemporary painters.
Based on the stage and radio play by scripter Martyn Hesford, this 1934-set film spends a swatch of time with Lowry and his domineering, widowed mum, who, with vivid dysfunction, share a modest home in working-class Lancashire, England.
Although it occasionally escapes its theatrical roots, the movie largely takes place in Elizabeth’s bedroom. That’s where Lowry shares meals and chats with the forlorn and manipulative woman, who never misses a chance to blithely degrade, browbeat or discourage her middle-aged son. Her constant jabs at Lowry’s artwork — gloomy but distinctive urban landscapes — are like stakes to his heart, endured with a grim patience learned over a lifetime.
If often sad and unsettling, the film is also livelier and less oppressive than it may sound thanks to the fine writing, deft direction by Adrian Noble, and the superb, if painful interplay between Redgrave and Spall (who played another well-known English painter in 2014’s “Mr. Turner”).
A present-day visit to the Lowry, a museum in Salford Quays, England, which houses much of Lowry’s work, provides a fitting coda.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills